Urban Oasis on a Balcony: From Concrete Furnace to Edible Habitat

Edible Cities
Saturday, 16th November 2013

A glimpse into our NEW book on urban permaculture, Edible Cities. Here, the Stark family have created a layered edible balcony garden, with water tips from Sepp Holzer.

Balconies and terraces can offer far more than fresh air and a little bit of green. Even very sunny spaces can be turned into edible gardens using a few simple tricks. 

Tenants: Married couple with full-time jobs

Place: 3rd District (Landstrasse), Vienna, Austria

Project: Balcony and patio conversion, total 45m2

Initial situation

The Starks moved into their flat in 2003. It was important to them that the flat had two external spaces of different sizes, the balcony and patio. Frau Stark wanted to get a little bit of green space back into her life, having grown up in a small town but then moved into the city for professional reasons. 

First alterations

Following recent trends, the bare concrete surfaces were initially filled with ornamental shrubs planted in pots, which soon revealed some problems: coniferous shrubs were attacked by aphids, followed by an invasion of wasps the following spring. (Wasps and bees feed on the sugary secretions of aphids, also called honeydew. In German, the product is often called ‘forest honey’.) In response, the couple reduced the number of ornamentals and replaced them with herbs such as lavender. This reduced the various bothersome insects by boosting natural pest control. From 2008 the aspirations of the couple increasingly shifted towards self-reliance. Planting herbs was the first step. Herr Stark installed a Feng Shui fountain in a corner of the balcony, adding a mellow, calming rippling sound to the atmosphere. In 2011 the herbs did very well and the ornamentals were beginning to show some blossom, but a significant degree of self-reliance was still very distant. 

Permaculture approach

Author Judith Anger offered a consultation with the goal of converting the balcony and patio using permaculture ideas. Due to the south-facing aspect, away from the wind, the main problem was the constant heat build up. Even cacti would suffer in the accumulated heat.

The first step was to use water, not only to irrigate plants but to add moisture to the soil by adding Feng Shui fountains. This created new microclimates beneficial to plants and people alike.

Next, more shade was created towards the balcony edge by installing raised beds with trellises. In the long run, grape vines and kiwi plants will grow over a pergola and so add shade from above.

By now, the growing space for the first steps towards self-reliance has been created and the microclimate improved. Many soft fruits, vegetables and herbs can be planted over the coming spring and early summer.

Finally, composting closes the product cycle of cradle to cradle, leading to greater independence from manufactured compost products sold in garden centres.

The situation described here is typical for an under-used private urban space. From a permaculture point of view, the creation of an appropriate microclimate by planting in several layers and choosing the right plants makes good sense. An even better solution would be to supply the power needed for the fountains through photovoltaic water panels and to supply the fountain with rain water collected from the roof and stored in a barrel. For new buildings it would be sensible to plan the necessary infrastructure for home growing from the start, and so avoid the need to laboriously convert spaces to make them more usable.

Just as we are about to leave the Starks’ home, the door bell rings. “Here comes the watering service,” Frau Stark explains with a smile. “We are going away tomorrow, and we always coordinate holiday times with our neighbours, so we’re never away at the same time as them. This way, the plants are always looked after.”

Permaculture tip: Rainwater Harvesting by Sepp Holzer

Using expensively purified drinking water is not a permaculture solution. For irrigation in dry periods, it makes more sense to collect rainwater. 

For this purpose, a variety of commercial rainwater collection systems are available. They include a rainwater diverter that can be fitted to a downpipe and a plastic tank fitted with a tap for filling a watering can or fitting a hose. To prevent the tank from overflowing in a heavy rain, a shutter valve can be used to interrupt the flow from the downpipe. Alternatively, an overflow pipe sends excess water back from the tank into the downpipe. 

There are no legal issues with rainwater abstraction, but if you’re renting a house or flat it would be sensible to discuss your plans with your landlord first. If they (or you) are suspicious of your DIY skills it may be best to hire a plumber to fit the system. They will also ensure that the system can be de-installed again without problems should the need arise. 

A much simpler method is to place your plant pots on a saucer or bowl, which will collect water when the rain falls. This tiny reservoir can also be filled to tide your plants over when you are going away for a few days. 

Useful resources

This is an extract from NEW Edible Cities: Urban Permaculture for Gardens, Yards, Balconies, Rooftops and Beyond. Buy it from our Green Shopping site for a special price of £11.21 (also available for Kindle)

Urban permaculture growing with Juliet Kemp

Video: Re-greening urban food deserts

How to make vertical raised beds for urban green spaces

Video: How to grow a revolution in your own backyard

Permaculture in Pots: How to grow food in small urban spaces for a special price of £9.70 (also available for Kindle)

Please help us to continue to post inspiring, practical and cutting edge features online for free by SUBSCRIBING to Permaculture - download a FREE sample issue and try before you buy. Also available as a digital subscription (for just £10) and Apple and Android devices.